The City of Berkeley has prided itself in recent years for being at the forefront of the fight against global warming. Last year, the city council passed a sweeping Climate Action Plan, the first of its kind in the nation. And, in the past few months, city officials have methodically tried to create a green-tech-business corridor in West Berkeley despite angry protests from area NIMBYs. Nonetheless, the city appears to be quietly abandoning a key element of its landmark climate plan less than a year after adopting it.
The climate plan recognized that Berkeley will not be able to adequately address greenhouse gas emissions unless it builds more dense housing near new businesses and major transit corridors. “Clearly, by accommodating more people near jobs, transit, and other services, the Berkeley community can play an important role in reducing GHG emissions and maintaining a vibrant, healthy community,” the plan states.
Environmentalists and smart-growth advocates have increasingly realized over the years that one of the most effective ways to combat climate change is to get people out of their cars. And the best way to do that is to build more housing near job centers. The problem is particularly acute in Berkeley, because it has nowhere near enough housing for people who work in the city. The climate plan notes that about 56 percent of all the people employed in Berkeley live outside the city and commute from elsewhere, thereby significantly adding to the region’s greenhouse gases.
Yet despite these facts, city officials have decided to prohibit dense housing in wide swaths of West Berkeley, even though they want to transform the area into a major green-tech job hub. In a draft plan reviewed at a city planning commission last week, city officials revealed that they intend to limit dense housing in West Berkeley to just along San Pablo and University avenues and not allow it elsewhere in the area.
Wendy Cosin, the city’s deputy planning director, told Eco Watch that her department decided to move forward with the draft plan after receiving direction from the city council, whose goal is green-tech development in West Berkeley — not to create more housing.
However, some local developers and property owners argue that the city’s decision to attract business but limit condos, apartments, and lofts could backfire. They say green-tech businesses may go elsewhere, possibly to the suburbs, in search of communities that have ample housing for their workers. Developers of green-collar, mixed-use developments — that is, condos, apartments, or lofts and green-tech office space — may also end up going to cities that will give them more opportunities to build.
The plan to attract green-tech — but not provide enough housing — also could force more commuters to drive to Berkeley, directly contravening one of the Climate Action Plan’s main goals. The city estimates that future green-tech businesses that spin off from UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory will produce thousands of new jobs. “You’ll just end up adding to the vehicle-miles traveled,” noted Darrell De Tienne, who is working to develop a large mixed-use site in West Berkeley known as Peerless Greens. “It contradicts what they’ve approved in the Climate Action Plan.”
As for West Berkeley’s NIMBYs, they not only oppose dense housing, but most of the green-tech businesses as well. At the planning commission meeting, residents complained about the potential for new 45- to 75-foot-tall buildings casting shadows on their homes and blocking their views of the hills and San Francisco Bay. One homeowner even griped that shadows would kill her tomatoes. And virtually none of the residents mentioned the fight against global warming.
Homeowners who oppose change have turned to Rick Auerbach of the West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies as their de facto spokesman. Even though his priorities are different, the results he seeks would be the same. Auerbach wants to limit green-tech research and development companies to a handful of larger sites in West Berkeley and prohibit them everywhere else because he believes they will displace traditional blue-collar industrial and warehouse jobs.
Auerbach also apparently intends to use any means necessary to achieve his goals, including turning the Climate Action Plan on its head. At the commission meeting, he contended that opening the door to green-tech in West Berkeley would lead to “a rise in greenhouse gas emissions.” And he wasn’t talking about the lack of housing. Instead, he argued that industrial and warehouse businesses will move elsewhere, thereby worsening commute traffic.
But what he didn’t acknowledge is that those businesses have been leaving Berkeley anyway for years — well before the new green-tech wave has arrived. In addition, there is no evidence that a significant number of industrial and warehouse workers live in Berkeley now, and so if those companies leave, there’s no telling how it will affect greenhouse gas emissions.
Regardless, the city deserves credit for standing up to the West Berkeley NIMBYs and moving forward with the green-tech jobs corridor. Berkeley can’t afford to lose out on the green revolution, especially at a time when the Obama administration is doling out huge grants to small startups that are trying to devise ways to lessen the impacts of the coming climate-change crisis.
In fact, Berkeley, a city in which most residents consider themselves to be environmentalists, should be doing all it can to address global warming, including accommodating condos, apartments, and lofts within its green-tech corridor. After all, no one is talking about building skyscrapers in West Berkeley. And it makes no sense to force workers who are trying to save the planet to get in their cars and drive just to get to their jobs.